Think Less, Speak More

Were you ever told to “think before you speak”? If so that was probably good advice if you’re prone to say silly things in everyday conversation. But onstage that doesn’t work so well with classical text. Words of the poets from Sophocles to Shakespeare are not natural speech where people are careful about what they say. This poetic language is directly connected to the character’s thoughts, actions, and emotions.

When looking at scansion, looking up words, and making sense of the text, those are times to do a lot of thinking. But if you get onstage and are thinking about all that and more you’re bound to give a very disconnected performance or reading of the text.

Have you ever listened to performances of Shakespeare where the actor tries to give a “natural” delivery of the language full of “ums”, “uhs”, pauses and mumbles? It doesn’t work! It’s not Mamet. Shakespeare’s speech is not and was never meant to be natural. People didn’t even talk like that in the 16th century.

The words are the character’s thoughts. When Hamlet says,

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit…

Do you think he’s planned out what he’s going to say? No! he’s telling the audience what’s in his heart at that very second in time. Everything in Shakespeare is “in the moment” and 100% here and now.

In that respect, there is no subtext in Shakespeare! People will say what they mean every time. Wait, some characters lie don’t they? Yes! But when a character is lying, we have been told they are lying or we will find out soon after that they were lying. But the point is that there’s not as much grey area hovering beneath the words.

The language will always be connected to the character objective in that scene and show how they feel. There’s no need to think about how to show what the character feels, the words speak for themselves. Be true to the text, let the words come out. If you’ve done your thinking about it beforehand and you know the words down pat, the rest will happen on its own if you let it.